Wit and wisdom: Ted Wragg remembered

18th December 2015 at 00:00
Ted Wragg
A decade on from the great educationalist’s death, we celebrate his legacy and his writing

It is 10 years this autumn since the death of Professor Ted Wragg, one of England’s most astute and well-known educationalists – as well as one of the funniest.

Not many professors of education also contribute to satirical sketch shows, but Professor Wragg, director of the School of Education at the University of Exeter, managed to do both well. Indeed, comedian Rory Bremner wrote that it was “a constant source of dismay to Ted that proposals he put forward as satire had a habit of turning up a few years later as policy”.

Professor Wragg’s witty columns ran in TES for 25 years, giving him a national audience – but his legacy is also alive in the day-to-day work of those who are still inspired by his belief that there is “no higher calling” than being a teacher.

To commemorate this anniversary, we raided the archives to collect some of the best bits from Ted Wragg’s TES columns down the years…

‘The farce of the flashlight brigade’

November 4, 1988

“I reflected on a class of seven-year-olds I had been teaching. Had I been traditional or progressive, or, for that matter, did anyone give a hang? I had told them things, which sounds trad enough, but we had done a fair bit of group work, so perhaps I am progressive. On the other hand, I had told some of the groups what to do, so I must be a traditional progressive, apart from when they are allowed to discuss the task I have set them with fellow pupils, because at these times I am a progressive traditional.”

‘We all know who to blame’

September 18, 1998

“I suppose one of the biggest failures in our educational system is the large number of people who have no comprehension at all of what the term ‘average’ might actually mean. When the first national tests were given to seven-year-olds, roughly 50 per cent scored at level 2, the supposed “average”, and 25 per cent at each of levels 1 and 3. It was the sort of distribution you would expect.

“‘A quarter of pupils below average’ the headlines screamed (apart from those who wrote, ‘A third of pupils below average’). Clearly, the norm merchants will not reset until everyone is well above average, and the word itself finally explodes.”

‘Take Tony Zoffis’ bullets away’

September 22, 2000

“Apparently, the armed forces are so short of money that they cannot afford to pay for ammunition, so somebody has to shout ‘Bang!’ instead. ‘What do you do in the army, then?’ ‘Er, I’m the bloke who shouts “Bang!”’

“I have been baffled for some time about a man whose job it is to shout ‘Bang!’ at those working in education. I kept hearing his name – Tony Zoffis – over and over again.

“‘Where’s that funny idea come from?’

“‘Tony Zoffis.’

“According to journalists, this Tony Zoffis firmly believes that attacking teachers pushes you up the opinion polls, which is sad if true.”

‘Super Christmas Gifts’

December 14, 2001

“For her: Inflatable supply teacher. This life-sized blow-up dummy is an exact replica of a brilliant supply teacher – brim full of teaching ideas, endless patience, with huge biceps – precisely what she needs to take over her class when she is knackered.

“Just pull the toggle and ‘Bessie’ inflates instantly to teach any class any subject. ‘She certainly fooled us; we thought it was the deputy head’ – Year 6, Swinesville Primary School. Ofsted inflatables PLC: deluxe model costs £99.99; bog-standard model available for £29.99 (only says ‘Copy out of your textbooks’ over and over again).”

How to maintain enthusiasm after 30 years in the classroom

Ted also gave out advice as TES’ agony uncle – including this particular gem:

“There is nothing wrong with teaching as a lifelong career. It is the dross that goes with it that blights the profession. Teaching is for stayers, not for sprinters, so you can always get better at it. People who put on a flashy show when observed, but cannot sustain it, will impress only the gullible.

“Remember also that teaching is a social gene. In the second half of your career, as in the first, you will spread knowledge and skills that have taken the human race thousands of years to acquire. There is no higher calling; without you – and others – society would slide back into primitive squalor.”

Ted Wragg: a life

1938: Born on 26 June in Sheffield.

1943-56: Educated at Hunter’s Bar primary and King Edward VII Grammar School

1959: Durham University, first-class honours in German

1960: Durham University, first-class PGCE; marries Judith King. They go on to have three children – Josie, Caroline and Chris

1960-66: Teaches modern languages at Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Wakefield, and Wyggeston Boys’ School, Leicester

1966: Lecturer at the University of Exeter

1973-78: Professor of Education, University of Nottingham

1974: Teaching Teaching (David and Charles), the first of more than 40 books authored

1978-2003: Professor of education at the University of Exeter

1980: First column for TES

2005: Final book published – The Art and Science of Teaching and Learning (Routledge)

Transforming Exeter schools

“Ted was passionate about all children achieving, and particularly about those children who were disadvantaged,” says Professor Debra Myhill, chair of the Ted Wragg Trust.

The trust was originally set up in 2010 to support and advise St James School in Exeter, which was recovering after coming out of special measures in 2007. The trust was a joint venture between the University of Exeter, where Professor Wragg had been director of the Graduate School of Education for 25 years, and Exeter College.

By summer of 2015, the trust’s work had paid off: provisional results revealed that 55 per cent of students at St James School achieved five good GCSEs, including English and maths, and 25 per cent achieved the EBac. This was up from 2 per cent when the measure was first introduced.

St James’ 2015 Ofsted report – which gave it a “good” rating – added that the partnership with the trust was having a good impact on raising students’ aspirations.

As well as the original advisory trust, there is now a Ted Wragg multi-academy trust (MAT), which runs two other Exeter secondary schools: Isca Academy and the Cranbrook Education Campus. St James School will be joining the Ted Wragg MAT next year.

Rob Bosworth, vice chair of the multi-academy trust and assistant principal of Exeter College, says that Professor Wragg’s influence is still felt.

“The most important thing is that Ted Wragg was a massive believer in social mobility – that everyone should achieve and that there should be opportunities for all.”

Professor Myhill, director of the Centre for Research in Writing at the University of Exeter, says that it is Professor Wragg’s vision that still shapes their work.

She adds: “Ted was not pro-academies, but he was pragmatic. He’d have said go and do this, because that is the way the landscape is. For us to be in there doing something from a standpoint that it is socially just, he would have approved of this and been proud of it.”

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